Doctor Who Over the Eighties

By Scott Walker

It is during this era that Doctor Who went through some of the biggest changes and upheavals the show had experienced in it's twenty-five years. The eighties were dominated by producer John Nathan-Turner, who entered his role in 1980, heading season 19.

His era took the show on some phenomenal highs and lows. It all began when Anthony Read's The Horns of Nimon took the show into 1980. Graham Williams left as producer at the end of this story and it was up to Nathan-Turner to vastly improve the series. Graham Williams had left in his wake some very appalling stories, and direction standards were exceedingly poor. John radically improved the script and production quality with such writers as Terrance Dicks, Steve Gallagher and a surprise first for Doctor Who - Andrew Smith, the shows first fan writer. Full Circle was a highly successful show and fuelled the path of budding fan authors who increasingly deluged the production office with scripts and ideas.

Turner's first season was made harder due to Tom Baker being very ill, and it was quite noticeable during State of Decay.

The introduction of more companions to the TARDIS was a move that harked back to the early shows, before Jon Pertwee, in a bid to bring back that traditional 'old' feeling. However the added companions stretched writers to the limits and it was often common for one particular member to be absent in some stories, mainly Nyssa. Over the course of Nathan-Turner's first season, two companions were previously dropped and three new companions were slowly added: Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa. The introduction of Adric to the crew was to prove unsuccessful. He was the first male companion since Harry Sullivan, who made his debut in 1974 with Robot. Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) was to prove most unpopular due to his obvious inexperience in television. Doctor Who was his first such encounter with a secure acting job. He was voted No. 1 worst companion in the 1985 ADWFC poll.

The time had come again, for the leading character, Tom Baker, to regenerate. Baker felt seven years in the part was enough. He was now married to Lalla Ward, the second Romana. It was JNT's job to deal with a regeneration story, now a firmly established part of the show's overall history. The trend of a younger Doctor after each regeneration was something JNT wished to develop further. The Doctor had to be young, boyish looking, eccentric, unpredictable and likeable. Peter Davison was his first choice, and it was given over to him to establish the Doctor and continue the high standards of all predecessors.

Peter Davison was to prove very popular with the younger viewers, and his childish antics were an obvious drawcard to the childlike at heart. His first story, Castrovalva was not particularly well done, of course the usual excuse of "post regeneration blues" was used as the covering theme. It was also Anthony Ainley's second story as the new Master. His face is now as popular as the Doctors, and his presence in programmes has been disguised by the BBC with the use of anagrams of his name. Ainley is Roger Delgado's replacement after Delgado was killed in a car crash in 1974.

Season 19 stories became increasingly sophisticated and were aimed at a continuously adult audience. Kinda was the most complex story of the season. The use of strong psychological levels and ideas of demonic possession, control and domination were definitely adult in tone. The overall high standard of this season continued with Earthshock regarded by some as an all time classic. Voted first place as a classic story by the readers of DWB, it was obviously a story well received. The writers had pulled all stops to produce a series of smoothly running events that were understandable, enjoyable, riveting and tense, all culminating in the climactic death of Adric.

The twentieth season was again very high in standards. JNT was now gaining a reputation as a saviour, he had been promoting the show at conventions, displays and TV appearances, as well as producing something which had much to offer even the most casual of viewers. The first new continuing monster of the 1980s was seen when Snakedance hit the screens, featuring the return of the Mara. This season was the 20th anniversary, and a big effort was organised to help celebrate this special occasion with a magnificent story, The Five Doctors. JNT's efforts were praised both professionally and in fandom. The only sad point marking this story was Tom Baker's refusal to appear as he wanted a 'clean' break from the show he had appeared in for seven years. However he did agree to let the BBC use several scenes from the unfinished Shada. (Incidentally, TVNZ cut large chunks out of The Five Doctors, including a large part of the scene of Romana and the Doctor punting on the river.)

Season twenty-one began with Warriors of the Deep and immediately was meet with criticism, however, the rest of the season was of a high standard, especially The Caves of Androzani, Davison's final appearance in Doctor Who. He had now spent three years in the role, and it was time to leave for fresher fields.

Doctor Who entered 1984 right from the start surrounded in controversy. As was usually the case, the new Doctor had been chosen months before, scripts were planned and ideas presented. Colin Baker's choice as the Doctor was to prove a very bad direction for the show and led to much confusion in the ensuing months. The first piece of disturbing news was when JNT announced that the TARDIS was to be scraped, rumour had it that in it's place would be a space buggy or car of some sort, something which had fans in an uproar. Probably one of SF's most identifiable objects, was to disappear. "Police Boxes are a thing of the past, I think the last one went about four years ago and a whole generation has grown up believing the box to be a TARDIS and nothing else," said John at a news conference. However he bowed to pressure and the TARDIS remained safe.

But Colin's future was going to be quite shaky. Baker's costume was also now becoming something of a joke. Previous Doctors costumes had been mildly eccentric but not obviously and in such bad taste as Colin's was, it was not changed and was first seen in The Twin Dilemma. Colin's first story was to be the starting point of many harsh criticisms. Having the Doctor attempt to strangle his fellow companion was a big shock. Soon Colin's Doctor gained the reputation of being an excessively violent, arrogant, unwitty, sick, degrading, bad taste, and nauseating character, to name a few labels he obtained. The Two Doctors was the story that brought Doctor Who to its knees. Here was a character who had been the defender of good, defeater of evil, had never deliberately killed anything without a very good reason and always regretted it if he had to. Yet we see the Doctor soak a rag in cyanide, lie in waiting for the chef, Shockeye, then deliberately poison him, by holding the rag over his mouth, laughing. The season was allowed to finish, and then Michael Grade, head of BBC programming, ordered cancellation. Immediately the BBC was deluged by mail, pleas and expressions of outrage were channelled directly at Mr Grade. As Mr Grade said, "The public's reactions is bordering on the point of mass hysteria." Due to the pressure Grade faced, the show's cancellation became a ten-month hiatus - the loss of an entire season.

Other factors were also responsible for the programme's demise, JNT's programme format of double episodes proved disastrous. Six episodes became three, four became two. It didn't work, and was reverted to normal with Season 23.

During this time of prescribed rest, Doctor Who took on another medium. For the first time in it's history, it went onto radio as a complete story. (There was other radio appearances by Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah-Jane, but this was not as a story set in the Who Universe.) The name of the radio show was Slipback and was written by Eric Saward. It was transmitted in six episodes of ten minutes each. Nicola Bryant, Peri, took part as well as Colin Baker as the Doctor. Peri had proved a popular companion in England and America although some people found her voice to be slightly, if not totally, nauseating.

The return of Doctor Who, several months late, finally arrived on BBC in 1986. The 23rd season went out as the longest story yet seen, beating The Daleks' Master Plan by two episodes. Having seen this season I can say that it was a good one (compared to the previous one). It did come in for some harsh comment from some factions, however most comment was directed at Colin Baker's Doctor. It was during this season that Peri was seen to die, and a new companion, Mel, was introduced. The season's content was also controversial, in the way that it portrayed the High Council of Gallifrey in a bad light and ignored many of the Laws of Time. There was also the highly controversial Valeyard.

After a string of bad seasons, the BBC had decided Doctor Who's failings lay with Colin Baker and promptly sacked him without his knowledge.

Colin had been badly treated by the so-called "fans" also by the BBC Executives and refused to film a regeneration scene, which is vital to the changeover. He was forced to leave at the end of three years, with only two seasons completed.

JNT then probably made the biggest mistake of his career and hired a previously little known actor to play the Doctor's role. Sylvester McCoy (real name Patrick Kent Smith) was labelled as the "actor who stuffs ferrets down his trousers to earn a living".

JNT also decided it would be a good idea to introduce guest stars in each story as a pulling factor, and season 24 saw such big names as Kate O'Mara, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd, Don Henderson and Edward Peel making appearances. This was a big mistake, only two were fairly popular, being Kane as portrayed by the brilliant Edward Peel, and Don Henderson's Gavrok. The season was labelled pantomime with over the top acting, and horrendous scripts. Dragonfire was the only saving grace for this season.

Nathan-Turner was trying too hard to get the show into shape again. However, all his efforts were channelled into the wrong things. The show was becoming too glossy, too artificial looking. Sets were laughable and characters were cardboard cutouts. Emphasis was being put on special effects rather than acting standards.

There seems to be a running trend with each Doctor, most Doctor's second seasons contain the classic of that Doctor's era. Season Two: The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, Season Five: Fury From The Deep, Season Eight: The Daemons, Season 13: Pyramids of Mars, Season 20: The Five Doctors. Season 23 is the only exception and season 25 seems to be shaping up to this trend. Remembrance of the Daleks is the obvious classic so far. The writer's brief for this story was "Put the kids back behind the sofa". Again it seems as though an immense effort has been undertaken to produce a high standard season. Much has been toned down. Humour is now a lot subtler and menace is back with a vengeance. Ace is proving a popular companion, who can handle things on her own and holds a scene well. The Happiness Patrol is one of those stories that you hate to love. Its title is so corny yet it is a highly visual and entertaining story. The main villain, the Kandyman, is so cute, yet is a complete and utter bastard! These stories have made super use of special effects, but only where needed, and it is not all razzmatazz the whole way through. It is, however, all action, no rest the whole way through the stories are exciting and very visual. The complexity introduced into Remembrance leaves no chance to guess the plot or who is who, until the last moment, with plenty of shocking surprises. Sylvester seems to have settled down well and the role is now becoming familiar not only to him but his style is becoming so for us. It is a good season for John Nathan-Turner to end his reign and vacate the premises. Season 26 is already underway and much is being said in its favour. Let's hope Doctor Who improves as it is doing now, to a level that is beyond anything yet seen and that those bitching, picky fans go take a jump (meaning certain British fans).

Not only does the small screen need a clean up, which it is doing very smartly indeed, but so does the world of fandom. The last couple of years has seen an incredible upsurge in abusive and destructive criticism aimed at many people related to the show. First Colin Baker, who was hit hard personally by the strong criticism that was thrown at him. Due to this fact he has disowned a large part of British fandom, which is sad. John Nathan-Turner, although needing some criticism, took an unprecedented 'beating' over the last year. Constructive criticism was treated respectfully and printed carefully at first, until, somehow, it became a fad for fans to deliberately be cruel, hard and nasty towards a fellow human being. It is quite a notable trend that has developed in a decade filled with strains, relief, upheavals, and change to an institution.

This item appeared in 25 Years of a Time Lord (January 1989).